What are our options when an individual who has limited communication skills explodes with anger? What steps can we take to help them calm down? What can we do to help them stop screaming or hitting or biting or throwing or otherwise shouting their frustration or anger in hurtful or disruptive ways? How should we respond the moment an angry outburst occurs?
Anger management is challenging, particularly for individuals who are non-verbal and functioning on the spectrum of autism. The podcast, “Preventing Explosions,” discusses some strategies for helping prevent outbursts. But, in spite of our best prevention efforts, our friends will sometimes explode, displaying hurtful or extremely disruptive behaviors such as throwing items, running out of the room, hitting, biting, scratching, screaming, or using very inappropriate language. This podcast offers some ideas that may be appropriate for our immediate response when an explosive, angry outburst occurs.
(1) STEP BACK. Most people do not act rationally when they are extremely angry. This observation applies to all people, whether or not they are diagnosed with autism. Rational conversation does not usually penetrate the wall of frustration and anger. So it is probably not wise to scold an angry person or to try to convince them to be calm when they are in the midst of a tantrum or angry explosion. At the same time, it is sometimes effective to do something to interrupt their tantrum e.g. turn off the lights, turn your back, put your head down and withdraw interaction until they calm down.
(2) VENT. Sometimes folks need an opportunity to vent their anger before they can calm down. The trick is to help them express their frustration and anger in a manner that doesn’t hurt anyone. You can provide an “MAD” pillow they can hit and mash and scrunch. A soft ball or squishy toy works well for this as well. Some people need a “cool-down” space so they can retreat for a bit of time when they are very angry. This can be a certain chair or a swing or a bean bag chair in the corner of the room. Sometimes all that is necessary is for everyone in the room to look another way to allow the angry person a bit of time and space. This “reverse time-out” stragegy also helps assure that the angry person doesn’t suddenly become the center of attention and that angry, hurtful behavior isn’t encouraged or reinforced.
(3) CALM DOWN. As soon as a glimmer of calm behavior emerges, a window of opportunity opens for a response from us. Different people react to different strategies when calming down after a temper tantrum. For example, some folks respond to personal attention and an invitation to rejoin group activities, but others need some quiet time away from other people. For some folks, this is a teachable moment where it is appropriate to discuss their anger and to teach them more appropriate reactions. Other individuals resist even the most constructive guidance at this point. Some individuals appreciate our giving them opportunities to express the reasons for their anger as they emerge from an explosive outbursts. Other individuals prefer to be left alone at this point.
(4) PROCEED WITH CAUTION. Given the different reactions and moods, we need to proceed with caution so we don’t trigger another explosion. At the same time, it is important to avoid responses that encourage angry outbursts and temper tantrums. On one hand, we need to cut our friends some slack because anger is a natural response to the frustrations caused by the combination of poor communication skills and the inflexibility inherent in autism. But on the other hand, it is incumbent on us to take purposeful steps to decrease the frequency and intensity of their explosive behavior and to help them learn to express their anger in more constructive and appropriate ways. We welcome your ideas and comments. Send an e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com.
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com